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Port of Baltimore's 400-foot cranes prepare for Panama traffic

Marylanders celebrated the new super post-Panamax 400-foot cranes at the Port of Baltimore's Seagirt Marine Terminal.
Marylanders celebrated the new super post-Panamax 400-foot cranes at the Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal.

Soaring above the Baltimore skyline, four new 400-foot cranes stand ready to move containers from some of the world’s largest ships.

A widened Panama Canal, expected to be completed by 2015, will allow super post-Panamax ships to travel through Central America. The recent crane installation at the Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal makes it one of just two East Coast ports able to accept and load these container ships, capable of carrying at least 8,000 20-foot containers, at a width of 22 containers or more.

Super post-Panamax ships are already widely used throughout Asia, although access to the East Coast has been stifled by the Panama Canal’s current restrictive width and a scarcity of updated crane and port systems. Improvements in both Panama and American ports are expected to lead to a boom in international trade.

Baltimore’s new cranes are the result of a public-private partnership between the Maryland Port Administration and Highstar Capital’s Ports America Chesapeake. Over the next 50 years, the partnership is projected to generate up to $1.8 billion in total investment and revenue for the state of Maryland and to create a total of 5,700 jobs.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake joined private investment partner Christopher Lee, chairman of Ports America Chesapeake and founder and manager of Highstar Capital, and others during a celebration of the cranes on Wednesday morning.

The governor focused on the port’s role as a job creator.

“When it comes to job creation, Maryland is a net winner in trade and that’s why we make this investment. That’s why we crow about the fact that these men and women smoke the competition at 37 lifts an hour. We had the best year on record last year in the Port of Baltimore. More cars, farm machinery and construction equipment came through the Port of Baltimore than any other port in our country, thanks to these men and women. And more imported sugar, aluminum and forest products arrived here than any other port. And out of the 60 ports across the country, we were No. 2 in terms of the amount of coal and iron ore that came through our port. These rankings are important for one reason, and one reason only, and that is jobs—jobs, jobs, jobs,” O’Malley said.

Find video of a portion of the governor’s speech below.

The use of a public-private partnership to facilitate port expansion is historically uncommon, but Baltimore will likely become an example to other states and cities, Lee said.

“This success occurred because this governor didn’t just talk about it. He didn’t just wail and moan and lament the lack of public money. He mobilized the public sector to partner with the government to provide the investment dollars to open this great port to more ships, more economic development and most importantly, more jobs. It was a win for workers, a win for investors and a win for the tax payers and citizens of Maryland,” he said.

Lee said his firm was attracted to investment in the port because it represents long-term stability. “A port, by definition, is a key strategic asset. We’re the principal port to Washington, D.C., so the revenues here are pretty stable. We also have a 50-year concession from the state, so it’s perfect for what our investors are looking for,” he said.

His interest in the project is personal, as well. Lee, a longtime Baltimore resident and community activist, spoke extensively about the port’s historical significance. He also dedicated one of the cranes to his wife, Susan Ginkel.

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